The Freedom Swim: from Mandela’s Robben Island to the Cape Town shore

The stench of seal is part-fish, part-farm. It wafts around Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront when the breeze blows, curling the nostrils of those dining at terraced restaurants trading in more palatable scents like herbs and garlic. Cape fur seals haul themselves onto the pontoons beneath the waterfront’s walkways and collapse their huge, beanbag-esque mass across the decks just yards from the restaurants in this most popular part of town.

The seals have been here much longer than the city’s most fashionable redevelopment, longer than the city itself, longer than the southern continent’s first humans. And courtesy of the area’s first colonists, they gave their name to one of its most infamous sites.

The Dutch arrived here in the 1600s and within four years felt the need for a prison. Seals then, as now, draped all over a low, oval-shaped bulge in the bay, and these first settlers named the island after them, “Robben” being the Dutch word for seal.

The entrance to Robben Island that greets ferry passengers. Cape Town, South Africa.

The entrance to Robben Island that greets ferry passengers. Photograph: Michael Runkel/Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Today, every year, more than half a million people take the ferry to visit the prison museum on the island, drawn by the extraordinary legacy of its most famous reluctant resident, Nelson Mandela. And every April, a few hundred hardy souls use only half of their return ferry ticket, opting instead to make their own way back, celebrating Mandela’s legacy in the Freedom Swim. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, which lent extra poignancy to the event, and after years considering the challenge, I could resist no longer.

Mandela’s 18 years in prison on Robben Island during the final death rattle of apartheid helped shape the remarkable rebirth of South Africa. Each year on 27 April the whole country celebrates Freedom Day; it is the anniversary of their first democratic elections in 1994, when Mandela became president. The Freedom Swim is held annually on the Saturday closest to the 27th and is organised by local company Big Bay Events.

This year, tourists on the early morning ferry watched with mounting confusion and then consternation as some of their fellow passengers stripped to skimpy togs or writhed into wetsuits, smeared themselves with lubricant and concluded preparations for an unaided 7.5km crossing back to the mainland at Blouberg.

“The boat will not return today,” we told them. “You need to get ready to swim.”

Freedom swimmers get into the water at Robben Island. Cape Town, South Africa.

Freedom swimmers get into the water at Robben Island. Photograph: Chris Hitchcock

They were not fooled. Surely only the insane would attempt to swim the capricious, cold, fin-laden waters of this bay when there’s a perfectly comfortable ferry leaving every 30 minutes.

The more conventional Robben Island trip – lasting 3½ to 4 hours including the return ferry (£21) – is now an essential part of any Cape Town visit. Apart from the fascinating history of the prison itself and the catalytic impact it had on the transformation of the nation, the journey there and back offers the most famous views of the city, framed by the blue waters of the Atlantic beneath and the towering triumvirate of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak above.

But nothing can compare with the extraordinary view of Table Mountain that emerges with each breath of my return journey. Cape Towners are an active bunch – thousands of them know the bay from surfing, sailing, fishing, paddling – and they know this vista well. But for the visitor, swimming the bay offers the rare thrill of seeing one of the world’s most famous cityscapes from sea level.

Up to 200 swimmers now take part in the event.

Up to 200 swimmers now take part in the event. Photograph: Chris Hitchcock

There is a hardy elite of international long-distance swimmers for whom the Robben Island crossing is a race, another epic achievement to adorn competition CVs. The record is an astounding one hour 23 minutes, set by South African Olympian Troyden Prinsloo in 2013. But the addition of a relay, a half-distance swim and a wetsuit category has democratised the event and made it more accessible.

As with Alcatraz in San Francisco there were a number of fabled escape attempts from Robben Island over the years that added to the mystique of the place. But although the first officially recorded swim took place in 1909 when Henry Charteris Hooper successfully made it back to Cape Town, the number of people attempting to emulate his achievement averaged only a dozen or so every year until the 1990s.

Friends, family and spectators wait at the Cape Town waterfront for the swimmers to complete the event.

Friends, family and spectators wait at the Cape Town waterfront for the swimmers to complete the event

Then at the turn of this century one-off individual attempts gave way to the organised events that became the Freedom Swim, which now averages around 200 swimmers each year. Entrants must have considerable previous cold-water and long-distance swimming experience as the water temperature (usually between 12 and 15C) and turbulent conditions make this one of the world’s toughest annual races.

Overnight the water temperature can drop as much as three or four degrees C depending on the current and wind directions – Antarctica is the next landmass south of the Cape Peninsula after all – and any swimmer who doesn’t expect a choppy, unpredictable crossing at the point where two oceans meet probably shouldn’t be in the water at all.

The most daunting aspect of the swim, however, is the potential for an encounter with great white sharks. Just a few hours down the coast a thriving shark dive industry promotes interaction with the scariest sea creature on the planet but they don’t frequently enter the northern waters off Cape Town, and there has never been a shark sighting during a Freedom Swim.

Writer Graham Little shows off his medal after completing the Freedom Swim in Cape Town, South Africa.

Writer Graham Little shows off his medal after completing the Freedom Swim

I found it impossible to take on this test of fitness and courage without reflecting and privately channelling the epic struggles and ultimate triumphs of those incarcerated in one of the world’s most infamous prisons, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Forging some connection with a heroic statesman for the ages such as Nelson Mandela is what attracts those crowds to Robben Island each day, and reciting his favourite poem, William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, to the rhythm of my swimming stroke ensured I wouldn’t let him down as I pulled through the water away from his shrine.

Other than a two-hour fog delay in the morning we were actually blessed with near-perfect crossing conditions and after two and a quarter hours being “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul”, I reached the back of the waves crashing into Bloubergstrand and was washed in to feel the safety of the sand beneath my feet. It had been time spent contemplating the nature of human resilience, and the nature and beauty of a land riven by human conflict. For a unique perspective on South Africa, swimming into its oldest city from the site of its most significant museum is hard to beat.

Graham Little stayed in Cape Town at the Radisson Red (doubles from about £130 B&B) close to the Robben Island ferry terminal


Here are just a few of the exhibitions and events happening around the world this week, and throughout the year, to celebrate what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday.

Nelson Mandela: The Centenary Exhibition 2018, London

Nelson Mandela Centenary Exhibition At Southbank Centre, London.

Photograph: Pete Woodhead

Tracing Mandela’s journey from a freedom-fighting youth to a global figure of inspiration in the anti-apartheid movement, this free exhibition provides insight into his life and career. Presented in association with the Apartheid Museum and Anti-Apartheid Movement, Johannesburg, many items are on display for the first in the UK, including the Robben Island Bible – a copy of the Collected Works of Shakespeare that was smuggled in and contains original annotations by Mandela – alongside other objects and letters.
Until 19 August,

Global Citizen Festival, Johannesburg

Beyoncé, performing at Coachella earlier in 2018, will be joined at the Global Citizen Festival by Coldplay singer Chris Martin and Pharrell Williams.

Beyoncé, performing at Coachella earlier in 2018, will be joined at the Global Citizen Festival by Coldplay singer Chris Martin and Pharrell Williams. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella

Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, Chris Martin, Usher, Pharrell Williams and more will be performing at a free one-day festival at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg this December, to honour Mandela and his legacy in the fight to end world poverty. You can sign-up now on the website to find out how to “earn your tickets” in August.
2 December 2018,

Nelson Mandela Music Tribute, Portugal

Wyclef Jean, portrait.

Wyclef Jean will be performing at Praia do Aterro. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

A three-day festival on the coast on Praia do Aterro, near Matosinhos in Portugal, with artists including Martin Garrix, Bob Geldof, Kaiser Chiefs, Wyclef Jean and Steven Tyler. Profits go to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and local Portuguese charities. Day tickets cost €40, or €100 for all three days. There’s also currently 50% off tickets via Festicket and Wegoto.
18-20 July,

Nelson Mandela My Life: The Exhibition, Melbourne

Produced in collaboration with The Nelson Mandela Foundation this new exhibition, which opens on 22 September at the Melbourne Museum, will include immersive multimedia elements – using rare film, sound, imagery and artefacts from the archives. It aims to engage all ages and will embark on a world tour in 2019 (venues and dates to be confirmed).
Register for tickets and updates at

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibition, Winnipeg

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Photograph: Aaron Cohen

This exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, developed in collaboration with the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, is divided into five sections – apartheid, defiance, repression, mobilisation and freedom – and includes a replica of the 2m x 2.5m cell where Mandela was held for 18 years.
Until January 2019, tickets $12 ($6-$10 concessions),

Unthreading Madiba, Johannesburg

Two children pose in front of a portrait of Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Foundations Centre of Memory in Johannesburg.

Two children pose in front of a portrait of Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Johannesburg. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

This free exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, explores Mandela’s identity throughout his life and career through various items of his clothing and names he was given or took on: Nelson, comrade, Prisoner 46664, Mr President, Tata and others. Also on show at the free-to-enter centre is the permanent exhibition The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela, which includes artefacts and documents from his private archive and entry into his post-presidential office, preserved from the last time he was there.
Antonia Wilson

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